The Washington Post and the New York Times provided two big stories last week on Russian hacking. Most of the information is not new and has been available in less confirmed forms since before the election. Reporters and editors, however, did not find the story worth looking into until, maybe, now.
A few things are new in the two stories.
- The CIA assesses that Russia intervened in the election on the side of Donald Trump, rather than simply for disruption.
- Intelligence agencies have identified individuals connected to the Russian government, but not directly to the Kremlin, who provided Wikileaks with hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.
- Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees were hacked, but emails were released from the DNC and not the RNC; this is “in part” the basis of the conclusion that the hacks were intended to help Trump.
The CIA shared its assessment with “key senators” last week. The attribution of the hack to Russia and its intention to elect Trump were said to be “quite clear” (Post) or “high confidence” (NYT). The first phrase is not an intelligence assessment, but the second is. The briefing was not a national intelligence estimate. There is some dissent, not specified. That will presumably be ironed out in whatever conclusion the special investigation comes up with, which may be different from the CIA’s.
Neither article contains direct evidence of a Russian hack beyondthe CIA’s word that that is the case. We can hope that the later report will contain as much of that evidence as can be declassified; it is possible to infer from the articles that both electronic forensics and signal or human intelligence are the basis for the conclusion that the RNC was hacked.
This CIA conclusion seems to be solely about the release of DNC emails via Wikileaks. Nothing is said about manipulation of voting totals. It would be helpful to know who leaked the information. The Post article mentions several sources, not so clear for the Times. Both Democratic participants in the briefing – senators and their aides – and members of the intelligence community have motivation to leak. The Times mentions a “senior administration official.” Last week, seven Democratic senators asked Obama to declassify info. So they knew something was there.This week, Democrats asked for a briefing.
The intelligence community is not happy with Trump, who has been dissing them, most recently in his organization’s response to yesterday’s leaks and skipping intel briefings. So it’s possible that intel people leaked along with senators’ offices. People are trying to find significance in the timing of the leak. Friday afternoon is when information is dropped with the hope that it will disappear over the weekend, but it seems that the leakers wanted this information public. It’s possible that for some reason they wanted to get the information out rapidly and this was their only choice. Were they trying to get ahead of the announcement of Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State?
In September, congressional leaders were briefed on the Russian hacking. The public stance of the CIA was that the purpose of the hacking was to cast doubt on democratic systems generally, not necessarily to help one candidate. During that briefing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is said to have voiced doubts about the veracity of the intelligence. That’s a partial explanation of why President Obama might have felt it inadvisable to make the information public.
McConnell vowed at the beginning of Obama’s presidency to wreck that presidency, and he has continued with that crusade, even as it damages the country. It is not hard to infer that if Obama made this intelligence public, McConnell would pillory him on multiple grounds and that the Republican noise machine would follow. That would not achieve the ends Obama might hope for in making the intelligence public, namely alerting the public to the kinds of misinformation Russia was spreading. A strong response from McConnell might even make Russian misinformation more credible.
Obama might have felt, consistent with the ethics rules breached by the FBI’s James Comey in October, that making the results of an ongoing investigation public was too heavy a thumb on the electoral scale. He may have also believed that Clinton had a large enough lead to overcome the Russian misinformation.
Senator Harry Reid wrote a strong letter to James Comey on October 30, urging him to release information on Russian hacking. Comey, of course, did not. It’s likely that Obama knew about the letter and approved of Reid’s sending it as a more effective route than his own action. Reid now says that Comey hid information about Russian operations. Reid’s deputy chief of staff says that the Times interviewed Reid for an October 31 story and didn’t use any of what he said.
Vice News sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI on Trump’s claims about Clinton’s emails. The FBI turned down that request, after the election, in an unusual way, possibly indicating that an investigation was ongoing into Trump’s demand that Russia hack Clinton’s emails. Trump made that demand on July 27, during a press conference. He has not held a press conference since.
The Trump transition team’s statement on the CIA’s claims was
These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’
In that tweet, the Trump camp smears the CIA and lies about the Electoral College. It was not the intelligence community, but rather the Bush administration that mangled the evidence about WMD to justify its war against Iraq.
The hacked DNC material was portioned out to Wikileaks, from which mainstream media joyfully publicized what was largely gossip, ignoring substantive problems with Trump’s candidacy. The RNC material was never made public and is a potential basis for blackmail, perhaps even of President Trump.
The German intelligence service has issued an unprecedented warning about similar Russian misinformation operations as Germany’s election draws closer.
We need the investigation that a number of members of Congress are calling for. The information has been around for some time. The Times Public Editor has noted that the Times paid insufficient attention to the story. Others did more (Esquire, Newsweek), but that seems not to have been enough. An additional concern is the many connections between Trump team members and Russia, now including Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for Secretary of State.